A question of decency

Tom Sutcliffe on the moral treatment of rape in Britten’s opera

Bernard Rose, organist and Informator Choristarum at Magdalen, Oxford, once when I was a choral scholar memorably described The Rape of Lucretia as “Britten’s only decent opera”. He meant it was the only one free of homosexual overtones. Britten’s opera based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thanks to a countertenor Oberon, boy treble fairies, and an athletic lad as Puck, can get complicated. Much as Christopher Alden’s recent English National Opera production set in a school did with its implied romantic attachment between Oberon, a senior teacher, and Puck, a pupil.

Purity and provocation

Glyndebourne is marking the centenary of Britten’s birth with a rather self-conscious and emotionalised new production by the great Irish actress Fiona Shaw of The Rape of Lucretia, which Glyndebourne’s founder John Christie commissioned in 1946 in the wave of enthusiasm that greeted Peter Grimes (though Christie famously later came to describe Britten as “not one of us”). Once again, and awkwardly, the issue arises in Shaw’s staging what exactly this opera is about, or rather what is it trying to make us think about the rape itself, or about sexuality. Ronald Duncan’s idiosyncratic libretto is based on Andre Obey’s 1931 French play, in which a Male and Female Chorus provide a Christian interpretative filter for the story. Is the rape just typical human sin waiting to be healed by Christ’s sacrifice some 500 years after the Etruscan kings of Rome were sent packing? Shakespeare’s wonderful long poem ‘Lucrece’ takes a much more interesting line, I think. In painful inescapable detail Shakespeare shows how Lucretia feels pushed into a corner by Tarquinius’s action from which the only honourable escape for her is suicide. Nothing else can relieve the besmirching and render real her duty to and love for her husband Collatinus. Her spilling of her own blood is heroic and noble, a purifying offering as provocative in its way as the crucifixion.

The issue of consent

It is strange that Shaw, a woman director, should focus in a programme note on the possible attraction Lucretia may have felt for her rapist. The issue after all, and always, is consent. Every paedophile believes the abused child is seeking and being given enjoyment. But Paul Kildea in his fascinating new Britten biography, Benjamin Britten, A Life in the Twentieth Century, explains how Duncan the librettist wanted to mark the potential ambiguity of Lucretia’s involvement with a line for the Male Chorus describing a complicit action: ‘He takes her hand and places it upon his unsheathed sword’ and the Female Chorus responding: ‘Thus wounding her with an equal lust, a wound only his sword can heal.’ Is it dishonourable to respond sexually even though consent has been withheld? The Lord Chamberlain required these lines to be cut. But is it the mere feeling of sexual engagement that breeds the sense of guilt which is common in the victim? Whose sin is it anyway? It seems to me that the issue is not whether a victim is able to be sexualised, but whether they do or can consent.

Is it or is it not a rape? Shakespeare is in no doubt.

Masculine protagonism

The flaws in Fiona Shaw’s staging for me lie in its presentation of the story as a kind of human archaeology, with earth and foundations all over the set fitting ill with the reality of Lucretia’s domestic world. In one sense this opera is a lecture with demonstration, a tutorial discussion between Male and Female Choruses. But there needs to be a balance between the physicality that is the focal theme and the moral perception that is the frame. I admired David Soar’s Collatinus, but I could never really believe in any of the other figures. Britten’s ravishing music was beautifully played, and sensitively if too serenely conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Simplicity and severity

By way of contrast, Welsh National Opera’s trilogy of Donizetti works about our Tudor monarchs was quite accomplished. Anna Bolena, best of the bunch, was decently but rather grimly staged by Alessandro Talevi and conducted with a real feeling for its lyricism by a young Italian maestro, Daniele Rustioni. Serena Farnocchia as Anna gave the jewel performance of all three works, though Alastair Miles as Henry VIII sang as beautifully as any bass you will hear. But the casting of the other diva roles let things down. Adina Nitescu as Queen Elizabeth sounded truly monstrous in Maria Stuarda, and Judith Howarth was not impressive as the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, while Graeme Jenkins’s conducting was routine. The best performers in Roberto Devereux were Rustioni conducting and local artists David Kempster and Leah-Marian Jones as the Duke and Duchess of Nottingham. But neither Alexandra Deshorties as Queen Elizabeth nor Leonardo Capalbo as Essex gave us true bel canto, which is what Donizetti is all about. The fine Welsh chorus and the orchestra did their jobs with elegance and enthusiasm. The simplicity and severity of the largely stylised productions served the ambitious project well. But, as I also often feel at English National Opera, the casting of not very good foreigners is dubious. What Britain needs is to re-establish the permanent operatic ensembles that can both nurture our native vocal talents and enable our opera companies to vastly increase their productivity. At the local level all opera in the German-speaking world, the world’s operatic workshop, is based on permanently contracted ensembles, not on the vagaries of project funding. ND